News story

North East bid to be national testbed for 5G trial

Plans to position the North East as a key focus for the UK’s 5G revolution have been unveiled and will form the basis of a proposal to locate a national testbed here in the region.

The North East Combined Authority (NECA), the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), Nexus, the Digital Catapult Centre and the University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre have joined forces through a memorandum of understanding to develop a plan to provide mobile phone operators and technology companies with the environment they need to test out how the next generation of mobile and wireless technology can improve the delivery of a wide range of services to people and businesses. 

The ‘testbed’ programme would establish the region as a location of choice for a range of potential 5G applications in areas including energy, transport and health care. This will be achieved by creating a ‘fibreoptic backbone’ around the Tyne and Wear Metro system and linking different parts of the region to provide testbed opportunities. 

The Government is looking to establish the UK as a global leader in 5G enabled communications and is seeking to establish a group of testbeds to trial the technology and a range of possible applications in environments where it will be used every day. The ambition is supported by Digital Catapult, which has identified 5G development as critical in unlocking digital growth in the UK economy. 

Richard Baker, North East LEP Head of Strategy and Policy, said: “Our diverse and well-connected economy means that North East England is ideally positioned to play a key role in helping the UK meet its aim of being a global leader in 5G development. Our aim is to ensure that the region can seize the economic opportunities presented by 5G by being involved in the early stage testing needed to develop national 5G capability. 

“By 2030, it is estimated that the 5G enabled communications industry will be worth £198bn a year to national GDP and we want the North East to be at the forefront of this revolution, creating opportunities for local businesses and attracting new investment technology, as well as to ensure that our residents can benefit from new and improved services.” 

Dritan Kaleshi, Digital Catapult’s 5G Fellow, and member of the Steering Group for the project added: “The role of the Digital Catapult is to ensure that new digital technologies deliver economic growth and new opportunities for businesses and services to the public. 5G has the potential to revolutionise each of these areas. We welcome to opportunity to work with the North East on this project which could add significant value to the UK’s work to be in the forefront of this global revolution.”

Keith Robson, Chief Operating Officer of the University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre said: “The next generation of digital communications technology aims to significantly enhance the performance of digital connectivity in terms of reliability, speed and accessibility.

 “This will change the way that devices can connect to each other by embedding boundless connectivity for mobile devices and online customers in the UK. 5G has the potential to transform industry and services through multiple new applications, huge data storage and critical communications capacity. We believe that the North East has a unique offer to make to this national initiative and are pleased to be working with North East partners to realise this with the support of our own regional LEP, Enterprise M3..” 

Tobyn Hughes, Managing Director of Nexus, the public body which owns and runs the Tyne and Wear Metro, said: “We are delighted to be at the heart of this project, which is built on the unique infrastructure the Metro system’s region-wide fibre connectivity provides. It will enable us to test how 5G can improve transport services, but will also be able to provide the platform for testing other applications across the economy.” 

The North East partners have secured initial funding from the North East LEP to develop a business case which will lead to a bid for investment in the testbed to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. If successful, the 5G mobile technology trials could see a range of opportunities for local business to engage with 5G development and see new services developed in the region. 

The University of Surrey’s Government-recognised National Centre of 5G Industry Excellence is funded by major mobile phone operators and manufacturers who are looking for an environment to test the new technology which will reflect everyday conditions of use. It is backed by the Enterprise M3 LEP who have made it one of their key centres for their drive to capitalise on the growing global opportunities for Digital Enabling Technologies. 

Mobile phone and internet providers say it is critically important to establish how the technology performs at a pre-commercial stage.

Councillor Paul Watson, Chair of NECA, said: “The North East partners see trials as an opportunity to be in the first wave of 5G‐enablement, improve the region’s digital infrastructure and position the North East as the first choice for inward investment in digital industries. We’re confident of producing a strong bid that will not only highlight the region’s suitability as a testbed but also demonstrate that we are primed and ready to go on this project.”